Life’s Little Nothings

Based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov
Kiev’s National Academic Theatre of Russian Drama Lesya Ukrainka
St James Theatre

Natalya Shevchenko, Mikhail August and Stanislav Moskvin in A Daughter of Albion from Life's Little Nothings Credit: Fotostudiya

Stand-up vaudevillian comedy and some delightfully silly overacting capture perfectly a young man’s naughty exuberance, wicked observations and tongue-in-cheek humour.

Five of Antosha Chekhonte’s (aka Man Without a Spleen) slender short stories taken from Motley Stories, a collection of Chekhov’s earliest very short magazine stories, some written in his first year at medical school, are a hoot in Kirill Kashlikov and Mikhail Reznikovich’s joyful production.

Only a glimmer of the mature Chekhov as yet—though he is already putting Russian society under his microscope—but some astute doctoring and voiceover moralising produce a seamless ninety-minute evening of physical theatre with interludes of classical Russian romances that bind and wrap the evening in a warm glow. I am transported.

A Daughter of Albion, A Tripping Tongue, Aborigines, Comic Actor and The Wallet with vodka its magic potion—no Russian male or social occasion can manage without it ('how come every foreigner knows how to pronounce it faultlessly…')—entertain and enlighten with non-PC audacity, sending-up the human condition, national stereotypes, prejudices, and egos.

On a simple bleached wooden set, a boardwalk with bench, four lampposts and steps, Life’s Little Nothings opens with a fishing scene from A Daughter of Albion, which exposes Russian narrow parochial perspective and gives a lesson in indispensible Russian vodka drinking.

Mikhail August is hilarious as the red-faced guffawing drinker Otsov (vodka time, he says) disturbing Gryabov’s (Stanislav Moskvin, Kuzovkin in Turgenev’s play) peaceful fishing.

Haughty, cigar-smoking Miss Tfyce (Natalya Shevchenko), a woman of few words, manages to both intimidate and draw forth abuse from the upset Gryabov. She doesn’t understand a word, but body language draws her to some startling conclusions.

A Tripping Tongue (literally a long tongue, in the sense of prattling too much) finds a pretty young wife (her face a picture, gorgeous Charlize Theron lookalike Anna Grynchak gives a wonderful performance) getting carried away and spilling too many beans, as she tells her older State Counsellor husband (Viktor Aldoshin her quiet not so stupid stooge) about her trip to the Caucasus and her handsome young guide.

"I can imagine," he mutters. "A wife’s a wife, not a person." "If you don’t want to be lonely, don’t get married," he proclaims. This refrain runs through Chekhov’s work—it was in his letters the other night. Quotes from later works litter the tales, tying them up in a neat bundle.

Tastelessly translated as Aborigines (in the sense of philistines, who are no better than the people they are criticizing), two judgmental, prejudiced men who could have stepped straight out of Gogol, a German and a Pole, damn the lazy Russian sitting on a bench outside their window, as they manage to pass the day eating, drinking, playing chess and doing no work at all. There are so few honest, upright people in Russia a voiceover tells us.

The suspenseful Comic Actor has an actress rehearsing and overacting her lines as Nina from Seagull (director’s licence here, chronology is all wrong, of course), when a timid young man approaches her with a request, which he’s too embarrassed to make. She thinks the obvious, and the more he doesn’t speak the more he becomes attractive to her.

In the end, she is ready to accept his proposal of marriage, but all he wants is a glass of vodka, some hair of the dog for his hangover. A comical plastic physical performance from Kirill Nikolayev and a Sarah Bernhardt one from Yelena Chervononko, she talks of culture, his body craves vodka, each to his own lubricant.

But the best is saved for last: The Wallet. At a railway station, three penniless actors (in black overcoats, suits but no shirt or shoes, crosses round their necks, carrying suitcases) find a wallet with tons of money. "You could die from so much money." And they do.

Two send one off for some victuals—and don’t forget the vodka. The director makes a clever intervention here: a link to Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with quotes to match. Hamlet returns with the victuals, but in the meantime he has mused on killing the other two. He could have all the money and build himself a theatre; they’d waste it. So he poisons the vodka.

The other two in the meantime decide to kill Hamlet, which they do. Then they drink the vodka. A pile of bodies litters the stage. Yevgeny Avdeyenko, Maxim Nikitin, and Vitaly Ovcharov are a tremendous trio and could easily have stepped out of a Robert Wilson piece. There’s even something of Samuel Beckett about them. What’s it all about? "Oh, the devil only knows."

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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